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Oct 17/11

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Contagion (Movie); 50/50 (Movie); Landmarks (Art); another africa (Theatre)

Contagion (Movie) written by Scott Z Burns; directed by Steven Soderberg; starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Elliot Gould, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, John Hawkes, Griffin Kane.

The previews repelled me. Who needs a thriller about a lethal virus spreading rampantly across the world? But the word started reaching me that this movie was something special. Steven Soderberg directed, after all. So maybe it would be worth it, even for a card-carrying germophobe, to risk scaring himself so much that he’d be afraid ever to touch anything in public again?

It’s fair to say the risk has paid off (assuming I don’t come down with a deadly infection.) The opening of the movie sets up the spread of the virus neatly. Little scenarios, all without dialogue, show people becoming infected in different parts of the world, then succumbing. When the dialogue does start, the pace picks up considerably, due to a lot of overlapping (or do they call it ‘ellipsis’) whereby one scene merges into another.

The fear factor gets ratcheted up with references to medical crises of recent years: SARS, West Nile Virus, H-1-N-1. But mostly it’s the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 that hovers ominously. For the fascination factor, there are space-age labs where you hear loads of scientific mumbo-jumbo of the kind that bloats the typical tv medical show (from what I hear of them at a safe distance). Because of the general fear of infection, we get curfews, deserted streets, abandoned airports, garbage piling up. It gets so bad that funeral homes refuse to take bodies. In the midst of all this, Matt Damon struggles as the brave-hearted dad to keep his teenage daughter safe.

On the broader stage, there’s an abduction, international tension and a high-stakes race for a vaccine. Not to mention a geeky blogger with millions of followers who’s claiming that governments are in cahoots with pharmaceutical companies to prevent people from finding out about a homeopathic remedy.

All great fun.

About three-quarters of the way through, though, the movie seems to be reneging on its exciting promise. It all begins to seem a bit diffuse. Maybe that’s because of the many complex plot lines. We’re following the stories of so many people that we never see any one of them long enough to get really involved in that person’s struggle and to care greatly about how things work out for him or her. It’s just one-damn-thing-after-another. And the point of some of those things isn’t always clear. A woman who’s a close friend of one of the doctors seems to have a pivotal role but we barely know who she is. One puzzling incident involves shots in a house across the way and footprints in the snow that are never explained.

As a way of summing up what bothers me, let’s just say that I can’t tell you where the climax comes, if there is one. And yet, maybe that’s what’s best about the movie. Given the grandiose premise, the way it plays out is fairly realistic. Not melodramatic or overblown. There’s a sort of earnest documentary quality about it. That could be one of Mr. Soderberg’s trademarks, as illustrated by Che (See review on Dilettante's Diary page dated Mar 1/09.) This makes Contagion an ensemble piece for the actors, rather than a star vehicle. No Academy Awards lurking here. Except, possibly, for Jude Law in the role of the blogger. He’s been given a snaggle tooth to alter his pretty boy image, but not all the credit for the performance is due to the prosthesis. Mr. Law serves up a creepy character that comes from some part of his actor’s arsenal that I’ve never seen on display before. Still, he doesn’t clash with the low-key tone of the other actors. In fact, some of the big stars, even the ones who are playing good people, die early on. How long is it since you saw anything that true to life in a thriller?

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): Good but not amazing.

 

Landmarks (Art) by Tony Batten; Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto; until October 28

If you find yourself some day overwhelmed by the bustle at Yonge Street and St. Clair Ave, you might well head a block north to the art gallery at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. (The gallery’s in the section that joins the north and south church buildings.) That’s where I recently found an oasis of calm and beauty on a blustery fall day, thanks to the art work of Tony Batten. www.anthonybatten.com

This artist (whom I know a little from various encounters on the Toronto art scene) could well be one of Canada’s most distinguished watercolourists. Not only is he an elected member of the elite Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour, but he’s one of the few Canadians to have a watercolour chosen for the Queen’s collection at Windsor Castle. In this show, though, he displays his prowess with acrylics. Twenty-one paintings offer everything from the simple to the complicated, the large to the small, the serene to the hectic.

A couple of my favourites are charming little scenes from France. A storefront in Paris shows a door that’s just partly open and the dark interior beyond it beckons with great mystery and allure. A simple scene on a terrace in front of a house – just a table with a white cloth, a couple of chairs and luscious foliage hanging overhead – makes you smell the wine that’s waiting to be sipped. What I especially like about these two paintings is that the execution is so simple: just a few bold strokes of paint provide all the atmosphere and detail you need. An evocative effect is achieved in a similar way in a painting of two Toronto street cars passing each other: the iconic red and white vehicles, some slashes of yellow overhead representing traffic signals and the surrounding buildings just vaguely suggested.

Other paintings glory in a more showy and meticulous technique. Sprawling views of Newfoundland teem with details of boats, houses and gardens. A scene from Lake Superior shows waters pouring over rocks in a frenzy But it’s perhaps for his masterful depictions of great buildings that Mr. Batten is most renowned. Several large paintings of historical sights in Europe look like sets for vast operatic productions. One of them is of the Scuola Grande di San Roccco, in Venice. Mr. Batten has also done a watercolour rendering of this scene and, if you want to read my rave review of that painting, you can find it on the Dilettante’s Diary page dated Oct 22/09, under the title "Treasures". Grand as the acrylic version is, something about the watercolour appeals to me more. It seems to me that the transparency of that medium gives the Scuola setting more of a luminous quality than can be achieved with acrylics.

Which is not to say that the paintings in this show lack their unique appeal. In fact the centrepiece, of the collection, the painting that hits you when you walk in the door, casts an irresistible spell. Entitled "The First Snowballs of Winter," it shows the very part of Toronto where the gallery stands. You can see two churches at Yonge and Heath, including Yorkminister Park. Mr. Batten has captured perfectly a brooding, sombre look to the atmosphere but it’s marvellously offset by the bright jackets and knapsacks of the youths throwing snowballs across the street at each other. Quite fittingly, this painting has been chosen for reproduction on a charitable Christmas Card by The Printing House and proceeds will be distributed to national programs for children’s nutrition. You can find more information about the card at  www.tph.ca

 

50/50 (Movie) written by Will Reiser; directed by Jonathan Levine; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Houston, Andrew Arlie, Matt Frewer, Philip Baker Hall, Serge Houde

This cancer comedy is for people who know zip about the disease. Most of them are teens, judging from the rapturous response at the showing I attended. To them, cancer is just some dark horrible thing. So any attempt to make jokes about it is bound to be fascinating. Thus:

Chemo sessions turn out to be lots of fun because geezers pass around macaroons laced with marijuana.

A guy tells his mother "I have cancer." Period. She flips out. No follow-up questions such as any sensible adult would ask: what kind of cancer? what’s the recommended treatment? what’s the prognosis?

Said cancer patient shaves his head – no explanation why, no mention of the effects of chemotherapy. Just seems to be a fashion statement. Like, dude, don’t all cancer patients shave their heads?

The patient’s dork of a co-worker implausibly throws an office party where everybody starts saying goodbye to the patient.

None of the above is meant to suggest that you couldn’t make a sensitive, touching movie about a guy in his twenties who has a fifty-fifty chance of surviving cancer (a tumour on the spine, as it happens). Presumably that's what this movie’s trying to do. You could even make it interesting to grown ups. But you should probably not:

- cast Seth Rogen as the buddy who drools really obscene sex talk all the time (even it convinces the teens that they’re seeing a great movie);

- introduce a psychotherapist-in-training whose level of professional competence might just qualify her for a job as a receptionist in a dog hospital;

- set up a romance so corny that even Tom Hanks would cringe;

- provide background music that brings to mind one of those epics where some innocent Amish girl falls for a brave soldier;

- cast somebody like Angelica Houston, who has too much screen presence, as the neglected mom.

However, you would do well to cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the patient. His believable, understated quality comes across well. (Mind you, the deterioration of his physique due to the disease runs the gamut from A to B – to adapt the famous quip about somebody’s performance – but you can’t blame the actor for that.) He’s so good that I found myself wishing that some other filmmakers had chosen to tell this guy’s story.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): Nothing of interest except that Joseph Gordon-Levitt somehow maintains his integrity.

 

another africa (Theatre) With Dienye Waboso, Lucky Onyekachi Ejim, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Muoi Nene, Milton Barnes, Araya Mengesha, Maeve Beaty, Tom Barnett, Tony Nappo, Kristen Thomson. Canadian Stage, Toronto; Bluma Appel Theatre; until October 22.

The first half of this program from Volcano Theatre, Shine Your Eye (by Binyavanga Wainaina, directed by Ross Manson) is more like a Sound-and-Light show than a play. Mostly, the actors just stand front and centre and shout at the audience. The minimal story concerns a bright young woman (Dienye Waboso) who comes to Lagos to work in a computer business. Her dad was some kind of hero to the Nigerian people but he’s been assassinated. Turns out, her boss (Lucky Onyekachi Ejim) runs one of those Africa-based Internet scams. His rationale? The rest of the world is like a lion that wants to eat a goat (Africa), so "Somebody has to pay us for being the goat." There’s also talk about how Nigerians must seize control of their oil resources from foreigners.

All this is played out with lots of psychedelic rear projection. The woman’s co-workers break into jazzy song and dance, for no particular reason that I can see. Everybody performs with gusto galore but there are no relationships, apart from a friendship, conducted on Skype, between the young Nigerian woman and a woman who works in banking in Toronto (Ordena Setphens-Thompson). If you think it’s interesting watching ten minutes of Skype (projected on the big screen), especially when it involves a lecture on financial matters, then you’re that rare human being who is immune to boredom.

After about an hour, it seemed that maybe some drama was going to develop. The young woman was facing a crisis and she was going to have to make some decisions. But she was going to have to face her future without me. I could not endure any more haranguing. On the way out, though, it occurred to me to ask an usher whether the second act would continue in the same vein. Oh no, he assurred me, it’s entirely different, a whole new play. You mean no harranguing? None!

So I stayed. Most audience members were probably better informed than I about what was in store. Maybe this is the place, then, to explain why I avoid reading about movies and plays before seeing them. I like to form my own impressions without being influenced by the opinions of critics. I especially try to avoid program notes and publicity bumpf churned out by producers. I want to take a work on its own merits, without all the special pleading. In the back of my mind always is the situation where the strolling players come to the village square, set up their stage and perform. We take what they give us without explanation or apology. It works its magic on us or it doesn’t.

There are cases, however, where you have to read up on a show for some clarification after-the-fact. I now find, from reading the program, that the show was  meant to open with The Stranger by Deborah Asiimwe, directed by Wenye Mengesha. In the rehearsal process, the piece was whittled down to a brief choreographed introduction to the production. I hadn't realized that it wasn't part of Shine Your Eye. Because it had been intended as a stand-alone item, the production as a whole was billed as "The Africa Trilogy".

As for the last item on offer, Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God (written by Roland Schimmelpfennig and directed by Liesl Tommy), I’m not sure whether it was the most brilliant theatre I’ve ever seen, but it looked awfully good compared to what had gone before. We find ourselves somewhere in the "First World", in a glitzy living room – lots of glass and chrome – where a white couple are welcoming another white couple who’ve just come back from six years working as doctors in an unnamed African country.

Soon we realize we're in one of those Edward-Albee-type plays where the liquor produces all kinds of revelations that wouldn’t otherwise emerge. The couples argue about whether or not the doctors were doing any good in Africa or whether they were just enjoying a pampered lifestyle (cooks, maids, chauffeurs, etc). Various troubles in the couples’ relationships come up and, in another echo of Mr. Albee’s most famous work, confused references to an elusive child fly around.

To give the author credit, though, the dialogue isn’t as verbose as Mr. Albee’s. These two couples are witty and succinct. A couple of devices add a certain distinctive flair. One is the "freeze action" technique. Somebody will say something, then the action will freeze and one of the characters will say the opposite of what was just said. It gives the audience a feeling of seeing something snazzy and up-to-date. To me, though, it was like the subway train kept stopping in the middle of the tunnel. I’m like: oh no, not again! Possibly, some meanings do surface that wouldn’t otherwise. Generally, though, I prefer a script that lets us in on the real truths without such showy theatricalism.

Which brings us to another trick: a video camera hidden in a wooden doll that has been brought as a gift from Africa. What the camera sees is projected in black and white on a screen upstage. As the doll is passed around, the camera might be looking up at somebody’s chin from their lap, or simply staring into a bowl of flowers. To what purpose? Maybe there’s something to be said for getting two different views of something – close up and mid-distance – simultaneously. After a while, though, the doll is put down and all we see projected on the screen for the rest of the play is a cloudy sky. It took me ages to figure out that the skyscape was actually moving towards the left. I’m not sure that the distraction helped my appreciation of the play.

Still, the kibbitzing among the characters kept drawing me back. No question that the two women got the best treatment from the playwright. Kristen Thomson was the effusive and funny one, while Maev Beaty was more restrained, with a sad undercurrent to her. The characters of the two husbands (Tony Nappo and Tom Barnett) were not as clearly drawn, in my view. Still, it was interesting, while the couples were discussing Africa, to compare their comments with what the Africans themselves had been saying in the first half of the program. I just wish they’d said it in a way more to my liking.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com